State of the European Union: skills are once more on the agenda

On 13 September, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made her annual State of the European Union speech, which will be her last in this legislature. This is always the time for the head of the Commission to take stock of the achievements of the past year and to look forward to what the Commission and EU should do to meet the latest and current challenges.

This year, while she addressed some energy transition measures that have been rolled out in the past year, her speech was heavily focused on the competitiveness of European businesses and especially SMEs. She highlighted the impact of high inflation due to the energy crisis on EU businesses which has curtailed economic activity. Increased administrative procedures, also linked to green legislation and reporting, also came under scrutiny and she vowed to ease this burden that affects EU businesses. Her main target is to reduce EU reporting obligations by 25%.

She also addressed technology and namely the access to clean technology but also digitalisation and AI. On the former, she insisted our companies have been too exposed to supply chain bottlenecks and the need for Europe to become more sovereign but also working with trusted partners around the globe.

On AI, she emphasises the opportunities and potential for EU businesses that can stem from developing AI technologies, a topic that will also be addressed at EuropeOn and GCP’s Installers’ Summit in November in Brussels. However, von der Leyen reminded how such development would be accompanied by regulatory oversight. She praised the EU AI Act as the “first comprehensive pro-innovation AI law” that should contribute to ensuring this technology is developed in a responsible way, mitigating risks but still tapping into its potential.

But most importantly, Ursula von der Leyen made a point of the skills shortages and mismatches affecting a broad range of economic sectors. While employment has remained very high and the feared wave of jobs losses after the pandemic did not materialise, we are now in a situation where 74% of SMEs are facing a skills shortage (and this is the topic with which we will open our Installers’ Summit) .

This is of course the case for electrical contractors who have to face an increasing demand for green electrical installations but struggle to recruit enough workers, while having to continuously keep their workers’ skills up to date to match the new technologies demanded by the energy transition.

Ursula von der Leyen highlighted how such shortages and mismatches are hampering our competitiveness and the need to improve access to the layout market, especially for youth and women. This last point is especially relevant for our industry as apprenticeships are a perfect way to access the labour market, as they combine education and working, while ensuring a stable and future-proof place in the electrical contracting market.

Ursula von der Leyen announced a Social Partner Summit to take place in the first half of 2024, under the Belgian Presidency of the Council, where such issues could be discussed. We look forward to technical education and careers being high on the agenda at this occasion as well!